In writing this essay, I am reminded of Progressive Architecture’s old editorial policy: don’t review anything before it’s been open for at least a year. Klyde Warren Park hasn’t yet made its debut, but expectations are sky high. The park is supposed to heal an old urban wound, knit together two distinct districts, make Dallas a walkable city, and change its entire urban culture. This is a tall order for any design project, and the park will need patience and time to develop.
In the short term, though, perhaps the park’s greatest success is purely symbolic. The act of burying a highway beneath a green space is an enormous and deeply admirable civic gesture, especially in a 21st century city carved into pieces by impassable concrete canyons, railroad right of ways, and vast flood plains. Klyde Warren Park represents an opening volley in the battle to make Dallas more responsive to people as people, not drivers.
When paired with the developing Katy Trail and the Trinity River Corridor projects, Klyde Warren Park shows that an alternative vision for Dallas as a city of greenbelts and parks is not just a pipe dream. That Dallas was able to radically alter city infrastructure, even just in these few city blocks, means that much more can be achieved. Beyond this symbolism, though, as citizens, we should ask how well the park is designed to make this idealistic vision possible.
For its initial months, the park will be filled with activities designed to draw people into an unfamiliar public space and teach them how to use it. This is a classic park design technique that has its roots in the civic idealism of the nineteenth century. But when this period of programming wanes, as it inevitably will, can the park sustain public interest? Can it be a public space that functions as a neighborhood park for Uptown Dallas and a civic park for downtown? Will it actually create a healthy pedestrian life?
First, this is a relatively small park. Despite the price tag and the scale of the infrastructure that had to be designed to accommodate it, the area is really only about three city blocks. Much of that space is given over to discrete and physically separated activities like a dog park, a children’s park, a performance pavilion, and a restaurant. The park’s borders are clearly defined by neat allées of trees, with parallel rows of grasses and hedges further clarifying the perimeters. A series of arches, looking very much like miniature versions of Saarinen’s Gateway Arch, will nestle within the trees, helping to define a clear promenade from one end of the park to the other. This is not a park designed to encourage haphazard Frisbee games, skateboarding, or hanging out—it is designed to encourage organized and orderly activities: chess games, yoga classes, concerts, leisurely walks. In this way the park is not so much a park in the picturesque sense, but more of a formal town square.
Second, all of the buildings alongside the park were designed to face a loud, inhospitable highway—not a park. To the south, the Arts District is defined by a series of walls, from the Dallas Museum of Art’s wall enclosing the parking forecourt, to the Nasher’s wall enclosing its sculpture garden, to the Meyerson’s wall defining the edges of its lawn. On the north side, there are two drive-through banks and a series of office towers, with no meaningful ways of addressing the potential of a lively human presence. The park itself can do little to encourage interconnection between Uptown and the Arts District, when every building surrounding it is a silo. At best, though, the park’s presence will act as a provocation to designers to reach out and to propose ways of breaking down the barriers that still exist. The highway is gone: what do we need all those walls for anymore?
And finally, the edges of the park itself seem to be less than porous. At its western end, a subterranean exit ramp, combined with concrete walls and barriers, cuts the park off from pedestrians at St. Paul Street. At the eastern end, despite the buried highway, the six lanes of the Pearl Street overpass with additional turning lanes keep pedestrian life unpleasant. The closing of Harwood Street and the insertion of pedestrian plazas at its edges within the park makes a single pipeline from north to south. In other words, the park buried the highway, but the surrounding access roads are still fighting to keep pedestrians firmly out of the way.
These shortcomings are all changeable and they return me to my opening point: The park needs time. It cannot solve the problems of 100 years of urban development on its own, and the problems won’t be solved overnight. The park provides optimism and a symbol of progress, and we should remember that our greatest American parks have changed across time. At their best, parks are dynamic spaces that allow changes in urban life to unfold within them. The first big change for Klyde Warren Park is its grand opening. For the rest, keep visiting, speak up, and stay tuned.
Kathryn E. Holliday is director of the David Dillon Center for Texas Architecture at UT Arlington and the author of the newly released book, Ralph Walker: Architect of the Century (Rizzoli).